Russia refuses to have a gloomy New Year

By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Moscow

image copyrightGetty Images

The rouble's slump and warnings of a looming economic crisis have come at a bad time for Russians preparing for New Year festivities. But while some may miss foreign luxuries on the list of banned imports - Russia's response to Western sanctions - many remember how to make do, and refuse to be downhearted.

On 31 December, Nina will be doing something she has never done before on New Year's Eve.

She'll be staying at home.

"For the very first time I'll be seeing in the New Year in my own country," says Muscovite Nina, a brand manager for a Western drinks company. "All my life my family has flown to France or Germany for the New Year holidays. We have relatives there. But air tickets are so expensive now."

Nina is not alone. The weak rouble has forced many Russians to change their New Year holiday plans.

"In October, tour operator bookings slumped by 50-to-70%," says Irina Tyurina of the Russian Tour Operators Union.

"When the rouble collapsed on 15 December, bookings dried up completely. Foreign tours are not a necessity. They are the first things to be rejected when there are economic problems."

For Russians, 2015 looks like being a difficult year. Real incomes are expected to fall for the first time since Vladimir Putin came to power. People are bracing themselves for a deep recession - the economy is expected to contract by at least 4%. Inflation is forecast to reach 12-15%.

None of this economic doom and gloom will stop Russians breaking open the champagne and celebrating - Novy god (New Year) is the biggest holiday of the year. But it may affect what they buy for the party.

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image captionMany Russians grow or gather berries at their dacha (country cottage) and store them in jars

"Budgets are stretched," says Maria Kolbina, a consumer analyst with VTB Capital. "At the start of the year 33% of the household budget was spent on food. We estimate that has now risen to 41%. As a result people are 'trading down': they are buying cheaper versions of the food they normally eat."

That's not good news for confectionery trader Vika. She has a stall in the centre of Moscow selling festive chocolate collections. Her table is packed with sparkly tins and boxes, including packs of vodka liqueurs. But business hasn't been good.

"People aren't buying as much as they did this time last year," Vika tells me. "And when they do buy, they seem to go for the cheaper options."

It's not just inflation that is influencing the festive shop in Russia. So are the "anti-sanctions" Moscow imposed on the West earlier this year. As a result, certain imported products which may have graced some new year tables here in the past are no longer available: like French cheese, Norwegian salmon, German sausage.

But not all Russians seem worried about that.

Elena Vladimirovna is determined to enjoy her New Year party. Elena is an atomic specialist in Moscow. When she talks about Novy god, her eyes light up: with her enthusiasm and optimism, she seems to me to have the energy of a nuclear power station.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe outlook was far brighter 10 years ago

"None of these problems are going to affect my family," Elena tells me with a big smile. "For a start, we won't need to spend lots of money on alcohol: we make our own at home.

"Then there's all the food we already have from our dacha. On the balcony of our flat we have a trunk packed with 80 jars - there are strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, marrows and pumpkins."

These may be tough times. But Elena reminds me that they are nothing compared to what Russia has lived through.

"My 88-year-old uncle was in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. My mother and my aunt were in Belarus during World War Two. After what they experienced, nothing frightens them.

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionSoused herring in a "fur coat" of onion, carrot, potato and beetroot with mayonnaise

"What's more, at home we've stocked up with everything we might need, from buckwheat to macaroni. That'll last us till the summer. To be honest, bread and water would do me fine."

Russians are resourceful. Even in Soviet times, when there were regular shortages of certain food products, people usually managed to find everything they needed for their New Year parties.

And Russia is not the USSR. Despite its current economic problems, shops here have plenty on the shelves.

So, as Russians sit down to celebrate, tables will be bursting with traditional Olivier Salad (potato, chicken or sausage, eggs, carrots, cucumbers, mayonnaise) and Herring in a Fur Coat (herring with a layer of vegetables... and more mayonnaise).

As midnight approaches, Russians will drink a toast to the passing year, and then to 2015 - in the hope that the new year will bring them happiness.

image copyrightThinkstock

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